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The Poor at the Crossroads

The poor are what Dr. King once called “a new and unsettling force” capable of transforming “our complacent national life.”

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The 54th anniversary of the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., just passed. Dr. King was shot down while organizing low-wage sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time, he was building the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to organize America’s poor into a force to be reckoned with. In his opposition to the Vietnam War and his promotion of a campaign to lift the load of poverty, he suggested that racism, poverty, and militarism could only be dealt with by uniting millions of poor people to change the very structure of our national life.

More than half a century later, his message remains tragically relevant in our seemingly never-ending pandemic-ridden moment, still rife with racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Indeed, today, 60% more Americans are living below the official poverty line; racialized laws to suppress their votes have been passed in dozens of states; and the longest war in our history, the 20-year disaster in Afghanistan, only ended late last year, while globally conflict and bloodshed still swirl around us.

You need only check out the conditions of life for the 140 million Americans who are poor or low income to recognize how relevant King’s message still is. Today, the poor live at the crossroads of injustice, hurt first and worst by the interlocking evils of climate change, militarism, and racism, as well as other forms of violence and inequality. With gas prices ever higherfood shortages on the rise, and a possible recession (or worse) looming, those who continue to suffer the most will be those most affected by whatever is to come.

A Poor People’s Pandemic

A new report about the disproportionate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on poor communities has just been issued by the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William Barber) and the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions NetworkThe Poor People’s Pandemic Report connects data about Covid-19 deaths at the county level with other demographic information to demonstrate that, during the pandemic so far, poor counties have experienced twice the number of deaths as higher-income ones — and up to five times the number at the height of various waves of the disease. It reveals that Covid-19 has, in fact, been a poor people’s pandemic, one that exposes the depth of the racism, poverty, and ecological devastation that preceded it in poverty-stricken communities. That should be shocking news, don’t you think? But throughout the pandemic, the story of its unequal impact has largely not been covered by the mainstream media.

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Quite the opposite. Over the last two years, there have been countless stories about how Covid-19 was the great equalizer — how, unlike us, pandemics and plagues don’t discriminate. All too sadly, the new report shows clearly that, though a virus may not be able to discriminate, our society has in fact discriminated in the most virulent ways. Consider it an outright indictment of a society that allowed the deaths of almost 250,000 poor and low-income people in the year 2000 alone, two decades before the pandemic even hit our shores. It should be a wakeup call for a society that has become far too accustomed to death, at least when it’s poor people who are dying.

As Reverend Barber, who came up with the idea for the new report, explained, “The finding of this report reveals neglect and sometimes intentional decisions to not focus on the poor. There hasn’t been any systemic or systematic assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on the poor and low-income communities.” Indeed, to date, the government hasn’t even collected data on the impact of the pandemic based on income levels, leaving us to do the necessary detective work.

Importantly, the report’s findings can’t be explained by vaccine status alone. The disproportionate death rate among poor and low-income people is the result of a complex combination of factors, including work and life conditions that long predated the pandemic. For example, 22% of Native Americans, 20% of Hispanics, 11% of Blacks, 7.8% of Whites, and 7.2% of Asians didn’t have health insurance in 2019 just before the pandemic hit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, preexisting disparities in healthcare access, wealth distribution, and housing security yielded disastrous effects once it did so.

If you were to hold up a collective mirror to us, you would see a nation in which there were 87 million uninsured or underinsured people and 39 million workers who made less than a living wage before the pandemic struck. You would see a government that refused to either expand health care (even during the worst public-health crisis in generations) or raise wages for the very workers who can’t afford the essentials of life. You’re talking about a country in which, again before the pandemic arrived, 14 million families couldn’t afford to pay their water bills and more than half of our children lived in food-insecure homes. Is it any wonder that so many poor and low-income people suffered and died with the arrival of the virus?

Sacrifice Zones of the Poor

That toll from Covid-19 is, however, only one way to understand the recent impact of policy choices related to the poor. It was all too symbolically on target that immediately after releasing the Poor People’s Pandemic Report, the Poor People’s Campaign kicked off a Moral March on West Virginia that was to go from Harper’s Ferry to one of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s congressional offices in Martinsburg. Poor moms, former coal miners, labor organizers, and climate activists from West Virginia hiked 23 miles to call on “their” senator to begin actually addressing the needs of his constituents — to expand voting rights, raise the minimum wage to a living one, extend the Child Tax Credit, protect this planet, and invest in education, health care, and programs of social uplift.

In reality, by blocking the passage of even a watered-down Build Back Better bill in Congress, Manchin refused to legislate in the interest of the majority of his constituents, especially the 710,000 poor and low-income West Virginians. He has similarly blocked bills to restore and expand voting rights protections through the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

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Meanwhile, by refusing to vote to end the filibuster in the Senate or enact a fairer taxation system, Manchin continues to ensure that policies benefiting millions of Americans and the planet writ large will once again be left at the side of the road. He’s repeatedly chosen to side with the greed of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying group in the country, and the fossil-fuel industry against the needs of the people. And such stances have been disastrous. Figures compiled by the Institute for Policy Studies last year showed that in West Virginia, the $3.5 trillion version of the Build Back Better bill would have created 17,290 new jobs, benefited 346,000 children by extending the expanded child tax credit, and allowed an additional 88,050 West Virginians to take paid leave each year.

To make matters worse, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, there’s the Rockwool Ranson Plant, an insulation manufacturing factory set up in a poor community. Our Moral March made its way through Ranson. While there, we heard about a mother whose children go to a school just blocks from the plant, which is within two miles of four public schools that house 30% of the county’s student population (as well as several daycare centers). Scientists tested the blood levels of kids at North Jefferson Elementary School before the plant opened in 2021. Just a year later, there were already higher rates of asthma and toxins in their blood. Indeed, the very placement of that plant goes against the recommendations of the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization (WHO), both of which assert that heavy industry should not be located near schools. (WHO has specifically stated that industrial plants shouldn’t be located within two miles of schools.)

We heard testimony from horse breeders who claimed they could no longer raise thoroughbreds because of the changing air quality and bee farmers who, after generations of family farming, said they can no longer make a living. Not surprisingly, it’s a poor community with a high percentage of Black residents. No public hearings were even held before the plant’s opening, which Senator Manchin attended. Still, local resistance to it has been strong and continues to grow.

The Vulnerable Suffer the Consequences

Such suffering and resistance are realities not just in the hills and hollows of West Virginia. At the very time when West Virginians were rallying against the Rockwool Ranson Plant, for example, protests broke out in New York City against Mayor Eric Adams’ crackdown on the unhoused, including police sweeps of homeless encampments.

No wonder we in the Poor People’s Campaign travelled from that Moral March on West Virginia directly to New York to hold a Moral March on Wall Street. And just as Joe Manchin has gotten away with attacks on the poor while styling himself a populist hero, so Eric Adams has insisted that the sweeps he ordered are what’s best for New Yorkers, including the unhoused. Yet the true depth of homelessness there betrays the cruel measures Adams is pursuing.

In a city that spends more than $2 billion a year on homelessness, roughly 47,000 people — more than 14,500 of them children — sleep in its homeless shelters each night. Rather than address the scourge of poverty and the homelessness that goes with it, Adams has chosen to destroy more than 200 homeless encampments, while all-too-symbolically cutting the city’s homelessness budget by one-fifth. Like Manchin, he’s pursuing an all-too-familiar path in twenty-first century America: punishing the poor for their poverty while further gentrifying the city as a playground for the rich.

This is not, however, happening without a fight from the unhoused, local grassroots organizations, and even some politicians. The majority of New York’s City Council, for instance, has denounced his encampment demolitions. In a letter of opposition, they pointed out that “these sweeps will not end homeless[ness]; they will only put people in further harm.”

Amid all of this, one comment by Adams stopped me in my tracks. While meeting with a group of clergy, he argued that the disciples of Christ would have supported his homeless encampment sweeps, saying, “I can’t help but to believe that, if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were here today, they would be on the streets with me helping people get out of encampments.”

As a Christian preacher and biblical scholar, I should note that such a statement is not simply wrong or insensitive; it’s heretical. The Bible is clear that the rich and powerful are to blame for poverty, abuse, and injustice, not the poor themselves. And not surprisingly, throughout the ancient scriptures, those who hoard the wealth of the world also twist the words of the prophets to their own advantage at the expense of the poor and exploited.

But, as the story goes, just as Jesus was crucified and died, the tombs of the freedom fighters who came before him were opened and they were revived to continue the fight for justice. Hate and death, we are reminded, never have the last word.

Building Movements Not Monuments

Three years after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Carl Wendell Hines penned this poem about him entitled A Dead Man’s Dream:

“Now that he is safely dead let us praise him

Build monuments to his glory, sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes.

They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion

from their lives.

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So now that he is safely dead

We, with eased consciences, can teach our children that he

was a great man,

Knowing that the cause for which he lived is still a cause

And the dream for which he died is still a dream

A dead man’s dream.”

Jesus Christ was killed by the Roman Empire for building a movement of the abused and excluded, only to have his memory distorted by hateful and sacrilegious theologies throughout the ages. King was murdered as he fought poverty, racism, and militarism, only to later be quoted and canonized by those who despised him. Indeed, as Hines points out, it is far “easier to build monuments than to make a better world.” But as those in power like Joe Manchin and Eric Adams continue to find comfort in their (bad-faith) praise of prophets like Jesus and King, poor and dispossessed people in places like Ranson and New York continue to carry on the work of justice.

Yes, the organizing of the poor and dispossessed should be considered at least one antidote to the pandemics, literal and figurative, plaguing our society as we grieve for almost one million Americans dead of Covid-19 and more than six million people globally. Even if many of us don’t always either see or hear it, the leadership of those most affected by poverty and injustice is crucial to our future. They are what King once called “a new and unsettling force” capable of transforming “our complacent national life.”

Copyright 2022 Liz Theoharis


Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor and We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People's Campaign. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.

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